When first attempting to read Mandarin Chinese, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by a sea of unfamiliar characters.
Don’t fear the deep, dark sea. Jump into the shallows and start splashing around—maybe with some water wings on at first.
We know that reading in Chinese can be daunting, especially for beginning learners.
Yet if you’re doing it right, you won’t be among strange characters at all.
You’ll start out reading texts that are written for learners and use basic, common characters and vocabulary. This is the type of writing you’ll usually encounter in textbooks, but textbooks aren’t generally known for captivating content.
If you really want to start reading in Chinese and enjoying the experience, you need something that can hold your interest. That’s what graded readers are for. They offer linguistically-tailored texts but with stories that read like, well, real stories.
Why Read the Easy Short Stories in Graded Readers?
1. Useful characters and vocabulary
Graded readers focus on the characters and vocabulary words that are most useful to learners. You should be able to follow the story without having to look up every other word, and the words/characters you do look up will be immediately useful for your language development.
2. Test prep
Some graded readers are very specifically written to help learners prepare for language proficiency tests like the HSK. Hanban, which administers the HSK, publishes a list of vocabulary that they expect students to know at each level, and some graded readers make sure that readers encounter and learn all of the required vocabulary over the course of the story.
3. Avoid less useful vocabulary
The first Chinese-language book I tried to read was a children’s book. It was essentially a fairy tale about a girl who lived a long time ago. Some of the characters were so rare they weren’t in my dictionary. When I asked my Chinese teacher to explain, he frowned and told me maybe I should try reading something else.
Reading that fairy tale, with its castles and sword fights, wasn’t teaching me vocabulary that was actually relevant should I go to China or encounter a native Chinese speaker in the United States. Graded readers, on the other hand, will stick (almost) exclusively to vocabulary and subjects with some modern relevance.
4. Cultural significance
Many graded readers are written with cultural significance in mind. They will address issues that are relevant to people in China but unknown or not understood elsewhere. You might, for example, have a graded reader that’s a story about the 高考 (gāo kǎo, the college entrance exam) or about the experience of workers from rural areas who migrate to the city for work. So you’re learning not just language, but also about Chinese culture.
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When Should You Move On from Graded Readers?
I think you should “graduate” from graded readers as soon as you aren’t totally overwhelmed by reading native content. By “graduate” I mean that you should start reading native content for the bulk of your Chinese reading.
However, graded readers will remain a part of your learning toolbox for a long time, especially when it comes to test prep and other specific goals.
Easy Chinese Short Stories: How to Find Them and Learn from Them
1. Just Learn Chinese
Just Learn Chinese is a website for Chinese learners that has various resources, including short stories. The short stories are either written or edited by a Chinese teacher to make them appropriate for learners. The only downside is that you’ll have to read in your web browser, but the website is minimalist in design and easy to navigate.
One huge pro is that Just Learn Chinese’s stories are clearly labeled by level. The levels are described by how many Chinese characters the reader knows. Some of the stories (not all) have cultural significance, i.e. they take place in a Chinese setting. It’s also very easy to look up vocabulary. You just hover the cursor over any character or word you don’t know and you’ll get a pop-up definition. It’s all about text, and there isn’t any audio to go along with the stories, but using this site is an effective way to build reading skills.
Try: “我身后的眼睛” (wǒ shēn hòu dí yǎn jīng – “The Eyes Behind Me”), a story about a woman haunted by eyes who keep following her.
iMandarinPod is produced in conjunction with CCTV’s Special Chinese program. It’s a mix of regular short stories, news stories and daily news briefs in simple Chinese that you can listen to at regular speed or at a slowed-down speed. Most of the regular stories are quite short and are simplified versions of 成语 (chéng yǔ – idiom) stories.
One great feature is that iMandarinPod has audio for all of its stories, meaning you can read along and use the stories for listening practice as well. The stories also have a lot of cultural significance. 成语 stories are like Chinese fairy tales. Everyone knows them. So as a learner, having the cultural depth to recognize these idioms and the stories behind them can be really important.
There’s a little bit of a disconnect between the two main types of stories on iMandarinPod, but this will only help to expand your vocabulary. The news stories are hyper modern and feel very efficient and relevant, but the idiom stories aren’t modern at all, meaning you’ll end up learning some vocabulary related to riding horses and working the land.
Try: “骑还是不骑？” (qí hái shì bù qí – To Ride or Not to Ride), a story about a man, his grandson, a donkey and all of the opinions various bystanders have about who should or should not ride the donkey.
3. Chinese Stories Publishing Co., Ltd
iTunes | Google Play
Here’s a great website with numerous free Chinese short stories, for beginner, intermediate and advanced learners. You’ll have the option of downloading free e-books containing the stories or downloading the smartphone apps for iPhone or Android. There are separate apps for different skill levels, and each one offers both free and paid stories that you can read.
It’s easy to look up the words that the app has decided you probably won’t know based on your level, and you’re told not only the definition but also what HSK level the word corresponds to. The only trick is that you can’t look up any word within the app. Every story is accompanied by audio, and the app also has a reading comprehension test at the end of every story.
Just keep in mind that the stories here are written in traditional characters, which might be a downside to some learners.
Try: “中国情人节” (zhōng guó qíng rén jié – Chinese Valentine’s Day), a story about the holiday found within the apps and e-book for beginners.
This site’s collection of short 成语 stories are all focused on relating the stories behind Chinese idioms.
Knowing Chinese idioms is a good way to start understanding some of Chinese culture. I also think it’s fun and much more interesting than some of the more dry language work. These stories help you with idioms, as they have pop-up definitions and pinyin above all of the characters.
Actually, pinyin above all of the characters is a con for me. I just don’t think it’s a good way to go about reading Chinese, because using the pinyin as a crutch is so easy. However, this is something you can start with and then progress beyond quite quickly—especially since the stories here are very, very short.
You can even venture beyond the idiom stories here and explore their collections of poetry and songs, which offer all the same tools and on-site features to make reading easier.
Try: “对牛弹琴” (duì niú tán qín – Play the Lute to a Cow), a story about what happens when you overestimate the sophistication and intelligence of your audience.
5. Decipher Chinese
iTunes | Google Play
This cool collection of interactive, digital graded readers can be utilized on your web browser, iPhone or Android phone. It’s always fresh and evergreen, with new stories being added every day, and the layout and navigation is sleek. This is an excellent way to get started reading Mandarin Chinese texts for pleasure.
On top of the story library being constantly updated, the stories are written by professional teachers and written according to HSK levels. It’s very easy to look up words (all you have to do is click on anything you don’t understand to have a definition and the characters’ pinyin appear on-screen) and there’s also audio that plays along with the stories.
Try: The most recent story posted in your level!
6. Mandarin Companion
Mandarin Companion has taken Western classics like “The Secret Garden” and translated them into easy Chinese for learners, with some adaptations.
Most readers will be somewhat familiar with the overall plots already, so you won’t have to worry about losing the story thread if you don’t understand a passage. These are long books, not really short stories, so they take more time commitment. There are vocabulary lists supplied so you can study the words before tackling the story. Each story is available in printed format and for digital download to your Kindle, which might be convenient for some learners.
It’s not as easy to look up words, especially if you opt to read it in a hard copy. The main downside to Mandarin Companion, though, is that there’s not much cultural relevance to the stories, since they’re adaptations of Western stories.
Try: “六十年的梦” (liù shí nián dí mèng – The Sixty-Year Dream), an adaptation of “Rip Van Winkle.”
Reading short stories is a great way to kick-start your Chinese, especially when they’re in the format of a graded reader. Stories can also help you focus on learning the vocabulary and grammar that will bump your Chinese up to the next level.
Reading a whole story will give you a great sense of accomplishment, and that makes it more likely that you’ll continue with more stories!
So, go pick your first easy Chinese short story, and get hooked on reading!